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July 12, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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The Downfall of K Rudd

Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007 on the back of a brilliant campaign where he out-maneuvered the long-serving incumbent John Howard to become Australia’s 26th Prime Minister. Having enjoyed spectacular success for the most part, and high levels of popular support—with voter satisfaction peaking at 67 per cent in September last year—Rudd’s downfall was swift. It can be attributed to two specific issues: the loss of public support after the emissions trading scheme (ETS) was dumped, and a controversial tax he sought to impose on the mining industry. Alongside these is of course the ever-present issue of asylum seekers.

Despite the huge drop in support for Rudd, two Australian surveys found in the week prior to the leadership coup, Labor was actually favoured ahead of the opposition Liberal Party, enjoying 52 per cent support compared to the Liberal’s 48 per cent. This led Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter Hartcher to comment that “Rudd was still electable”. Former Secretary of the Labor Party Bob McCullan noted that no government who was achieving the levels of support indicated by the aforementioned polls had ever failed to stay in power this close to an election. Therefore, it is understandable that there is an air of disbelief and confusion around the Labor Party’s decision to put the proverbial knife into Rudd’s back.

The answer behind the disposal of Rudd lies in a quote from former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating: “Where goes New South Wales, so goes federal Labor.” It is this statement that really underpins the dramatic change in power seen in the Australian leadership. As Michelle Grattan, Political Editor of Melbourne newspaper The Age explains: “Polls and media campaigns, in the age of the continuous news cycle, wield disproportionate influence,” and subsequently, she refers to the “penchant of sections of the NSW Right for demanding resignations when the polls get rough”. The polls gave this faction the impetus to drive out a leader with whom they had become dissatisfied due to his “high-handed leadership style”, and their desire for a harder stance on asylum seekers, the ETS to be dumped and for Rudd to back off on the mining tax. Gillard appears to have been willing to offer the Right what they wanted.

Despite the conspiratorial nature of Gillard’s leadership takeover, and the fact that Rudd could quite conceivably have led the Australian Labor Party to victory once again, it can be conceded that the ousted Prime Minister’s replacement is a far more serious threat to Tony Abbott and Liberal Party’s chances of winning the next election. Enjoying significant popular support, being Australia’s first female Prime Minister—and thus likely to resonate with female voters—Gillard could ensure that the Labor Party is re-elected for a second term. She has the option of calling a quick election in which she might hope to sail through while in her ‘honeymoon period’, though she risks voters questioning the stability of the Labor Party due to the change in leadership. Alternatively, she can wait as long as possible, cementing her role as a leader, but in this case re-election is going to be concentrated heavily on policy rather than Gillard’s character.

The key policy challenges Gillard faces are the very policies that saw the downfall of Rudd, and as such Gillard needs to distance herself from the previous Prime Minister’s approach, while still accepting a certain level of responsibility as his deputy. On the first two policies, Gillard has indicated so far that she doesn’t intend to move from Rudd’s approach. She has argued that there is the obvious need to address Australia’s carbon emissions in the future, but has not announced the re-introduction of a replacement ETS scheme, which means it remains off the immediate agenda. Similarly, Gillard has indicated that she would not change the government’s approach on asylum seekers. She won’t be pushing for the Right’s preference for a ‘harder stance’, but at the same time, she won’t be softening the government’s current stance to immigration. This only leaves Rudd’s controversial mining super-profits tax for Gillard to really set herself apart.

An attempt at taking on the mining industry in Australia would be comparable to the New Zealand Government attempting to take on Fonterra and the Federated Farmers. The backlash has been huge, and has seen the Labor Party’s support dwindle in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia—the key mining states, so it is no surprise Gillard has focused her efforts here. Following an announcement that she doesn’t believe the benefits of the tax can be directly associated with the government’s efforts to combat climate change, Gillard has cancelled the government’s advertising campaign supporting the tax, the first step to brokering a compromise with the miners.

It’s difficult to predict the result of the next Australian elections from here, but for Gillard, it is crucial she finds someway to seek this compromise which will resonate with advocates from both sides, as by putting all her eggs in the mining basket, retention of power is likely to hang in the balance.

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